‘If Beale Street’ could balk: Inside this year’s worst Oscars snub

A couple rests their foreheads on each other.
Annapurna Releasing /Courtesy

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The Academy Awards are always bound to exclude a few gems here and there. But this year, the Oscars don’t even know how to Oscar. So it’s not too surprising that Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk” wasn’t nominated for best picture, only earning nods for best adapted screenplay, best original score and best supporting actress. But the movie’s best picture snub does hurt, especially considering how it very well could have nabbed more nominations if its studio played the Oscars game.

First, it’s worth noting that films must campaign for their nominations. Like in any election, studios spend huge sums to sway academy voters during awards season. They mail DVD screeners to voters, buy ads in magazines, put a film’s stars through various press circuits, release promotional videos and, as anyone from LA knows, put up “for your consideration” billboards.

Netflix has spent $20 million in promoting Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece “Roma,” which is an inordinate budget for an Oscars campaign — even Billie Eilish seems to be in on it. Netflix is constantly disrupting the film industry, and it seems that its final frontier is conquering the Oscars, a goal that the company has the financial means to meet. It’s no wonder that “Roma” seems to be the frontrunner for best picture.

If Netflix represents one end of a spectrum, then Annapurna Pictures, the studio behind “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is its polar opposite, having financed a handful of underperforming films. Founded by Megan Ellison, the studio is known for bestowing budgets to auteur filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as indie visionaries such as Boots Riley and Ana Lily Amirpour. While this business strategy makes Annapurna beloved among cinephiles, it hasn’t always led to box office returns.

In the present, Annapurna finds itself deep in financial woes, and last year Ellison’s father, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, stepped in to right the ship with his billions. The studio even had to drop a high-profile Roger Ailes biopic and a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. Without the resources to mount full campaigns for both of its awards-viable films, “Beale Street” and “Vice,” Annapurna seemingly chose Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic.

Even though “Beale Street” is a better film than “Vice,” the latter is the easier awards sell. As films such as “Darkest Hour” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” can attest, even awful-to-mediocre biopics with strong (or perhaps, more accurately, but less articulately, “meh”) central performances are an Oscars shoo-in for best actor and best picture. Additionally, Christian Bale’s transformation into Cheney practically ensures a best makeup and hairstyling nod. It certainly didn’t help that Annapurna completely bungled the release of “Beale Street,” making it compete with “Vice” in theaters by moving its release from November to December.

In this sense, “Beale Street” lacks nominations in most of the major categories seemingly because of Oscars’ politics. It’s a strange thing to say, especially of a film made by Barry Jenkins — one would think that, after “Moonlight” won best picture in 2017, nobody in Hollywood would bet against him.

And of course, speaking subjectively, “Beale Street” is a great film that deserves to be recognized. By leaning completely into an affective experience driven by form, Barry Jenkins further proves that he’s the heir apparent to Wong Kar-wai.

For “Beale Street,” Jenkins reteamed with “Moonlight” cinematographer James Laxton — and to great effect. Every composition in “Beale Street” is pristine, and many are truly breathtaking. If you haven’t listened to Barry Jenkins explain the beauty of his closeups, it’s worth a listen. What’s more, it’s astounding that lead actress KiKi Layne hasn’t been in more awards conversations. Giving voice to James Baldwin’s words is no small task, and Layne, who makes her feature debut in the film, rises to the challenge.

Finally, there’s Jenkins’ screenplay. While I wanted to highlight aspects of the film that weren’t recognized by the academy, it’s truly worth noting that Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated script is a perfect adaptation of Baldwin’s novel. “Beale Street” maximizes the pathos of Baldwin’s prose, despite facing an uphill battle in dramatizing a rape allegation. But Jenkins is careful to empathize with the accuser, directly stating that survivors are to be believed, while still crafting an indictment of a justice system that allows a Black man to be framed for a horrific crime.

As a writer and director, Jenkins has the rare talent of foregrounding a grim story while still evoking the power of Black love. As a non-Black writer, I can’t speak to the full experience of such a film. But, I do know that not recognizing it is a mistake.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].